It’s easy to play games with other people’s land: Black Diamond v. Rural Utah

by Curt Bentley

This post is a response to an Op-Ed written by Peter Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Black Diamond, Inc., that was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on January 10, 2017 (and linked to below).

Let me begin by saying…

(1) I enjoy and love spending time on Utah’s public lands.

(2) I don’t support a wholesale transfer of public land from the federal government to the state government.


When it comes to analyzing the costs and benefits of designating national monuments and federal land preservation decisions, it is very easy for Mr. Black Diamond to talk about all the economic benefits from Utah’s public lands and wilderness designations while sitting in SLC running his company, as opposed to the folks in non-Moab (or even Moab) rural southeastern Utah unable to find work because land is removed from beneficial use. Think the tourism economy is a huge win for all these folks? Go ask them and listen what they say and have been saying.  It brings work, yes, but does it bring jobs sufficient to support families who want to live in the areas where they grew up year round?  I suppose we could assume that their opposition could all be a giant racism-induced Obama-hating conspiracy…or we might acknowledge they have legitimate concerns.

Second of all, let’s stop acting as though all opposition to the monument designation is the result of short-sighted, selfish environmental indifference.  When someone makes the decision to take a law designed to protect discrete archaeological sites and uses it to lock down millions of acres of land from all the way across the country — especially as to land on which he is likely to never set foot on outside of a possible photo-op — he should not be surprised at the blowback and suggest that it must all be a conspiracy motivated out of personal animus, ignorance, or greed.

It’s true that our Federal land is a treasure…at least some of it. It’s true that our Federal land should be protected…at least some of it. Other parts of it are frankly, barren and ugly, not suited for tourism and recreation, and should probably be developed in some way. My interest in potentially wanting to someday travel and mountain bike, trail run, or photograph landscapes on some remote piece of federal land should probably be balanced against the interests of people who actually live near that piece of land and need work that development might be able to provide. Sometimes preservation should win, sometimes it should lose.

Unfortunately, the Ken Ivories and Peter Metcalfs of the world have taken over the discussion. I worry that all rationality has left this debate at this point. Because even when people talk about compromise and balancing, they react to every potential disagreement with cries of “all-out assault!” (whether on property rights or public land, you decide) and threats to exercise nuclear options if opponents don’t acquiesce.

Meanwhile the folks who get lost in the endless discussion over saving resources for future generations or protecting the Constitution by preserving states rights are the folks who actually live on or near the land that the politicians, industry titans, and special interest groups are fighting over.  Nobody’s really listening to them.

And this is all reinforced by President Obama’s designation of Bear’s Ears as a national monument, which is a giant middle finger to those folks — telling them, essentially, “I don’t care what you think.  I don’t care what you say.  I know better than you what’s best for your area.  I (or a successor) may give you the right to have some diversity of uses of the land within the monument.  I may swap out other federal land to increase the value of SITLA lands.  But it will be on my terms and mine alone, and you’ll take what I give you.”  And then he wonders, mystified, why these folks are so upset, and comes up with possibilities like, “Racism, environmental indifference, selfishness, and ignorance.”  It’s these types of actions, not reasonable requests for, or decisions about, preservation, that drive people into the arms of Ken Ivory and Donald Trump.

It seems to me that the “intractable” public lands dispute is “intractable” principally because it has been co-opted by ideologues who are more interested in achieving a goal (max property rights or max preservation) and less interested in solving problems in a way that make sense for the folks who live there.

But I could be wrong.  The best approach to solving this problem may be to sit here in the overdeveloped Wasatch Front skiing in the winter, going to the spa at Snowbird, and spending time in our cabin up at Alta urging national level executive action while scoffing at those ignorant folks in rural Utah who just don’t understand how we’re trying to protect them from the horrible fate that befell us or how much money we’re trying to give them by stopping development in their town.

After all, what do we have to lose?  We have our jobs, development, and sustainable industry already and can afford to play ideological political games — as serious as we think these games are — with land we like to visit but where others are actually trying to live.

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